By Simeon Strunsky
Simeon Strunsky is one of the most brilliant and certainly the most modest of American journalists. I regret that I cannot praise him, for at present we both work in the same office, and kind words uttered in public would cause him to avoid me forever. All that is necessary is for my readers to examine his books and they will say for themselves what I am restrained from hinting. There is a spontaneous play of chaff in Mr. Strunsky’s lighter vein which is unsurpassed by any American humorist; his more inward musing is well exemplified by this selection (from Post-Impressions, 1914). If you read Post-Impressions, The Patient Observer, Belshazzar Court, Professor Latimer’s Progress and Sinbad and His Friends, you will have made a fair start.
Strunsky was born in Russia in 1879; studied at the Horace Mann High School (New York) and graduated from Columbia University in 1900. He worked on the staff of the New International Encyclopædia in 1900-06, and since then has been on the staff of the New York Evening Post, of which he is now editor.
ONCE every three months, with fair regularity, she was brought into the Night Court, found guilty, and fined. She came in between eleven o’clock and midnight, when the traffic of the court is at its heaviest, and it would be an hour, perhaps, before she was called to the bar. When her turn came she would rise from her seat at one end of the prisoners’ bench and confront the magistrate.
Her eyes did not reach to the level of the magistrate’s desk. A policeman in citizen’s clothes would mount the witness stand, take oath with a seriousness of mien which was surprising, in view of the frequency with which he was called upon to repeat the formula, and testify in an illiterate drone to a definite infraction of the law of the State, committed in his presence and with his encouragement. While he spoke the magistrate would look at the ceiling. When she was called upon to answer she defended herself with an obvious lie or two, while the magistrate looked over her head. He would then condemn her to pay the sum of ten dollars to the State and let her go.
She came to look forward to her visits at the Night Court.
The Night Court is no longer a center of general interest. During the first few months after it was established, two or three years ago, it was one of the great sights of a great city. For the newspapers it was a rich source of human-interest stories. It replaced Chinatown in its appeal to visitors from out-of-town. It stirred even the languid pulses of the native inhabitant with its offerings of something new in the way of “life.” The sociologists, sincere and amateur, crowded the benches and took notes.
To-day the novelty is worn off. The newspapers long ago abandoned the Night Court, clergymen go to it rarely for their texts, and the tango has taken its place. But the sociologists and the casual visitor have not disappeared. Serious people, anxious for an immediate vision of the pity of life, continue to fill the benches comfortably. No session of the court is without its little group of social investigators, among whom the women are in the majority. Many of them are young women, exceedingly sympathetic, handsomely gowned, and very well taken care of.
As she sat at one end of the prisoners’ bench waiting her turn before the magistrate’s desk, she would cast a sidelong glance over the railing that separated her from the handsomely gowned, gently bred, sympathetic young women in the audience. She observed with extraordinary admiration and delight those charming faces softened in pity, the graceful bearing, the admirably constructed yet simple coiffures, the elegance of dress, which she compared with the best that the windows in Sixth Avenue could show. She was amazed to find such gowns actually being worn instead of remaining as an unattainable ideal on smiling lay figures in the shop windows.
Occupants of the prisoners’ bench are not supposed to stare at the spectators. She had to steal a glance now and then. Her visits to the Night Court had become so much a matter of routine that she would venture a peep over the railing while the case immediately preceding her own was being tried. Once or twice she was surprised by the clerk who called her name. She stood up mechanically and faced the magistrate as Officer Smith, in civilian clothes, mounted the witness stand.
She had no grudge against Officer Smith. She did not visualize him either as a person or as a part of a system. He was merely an incident of her trade. She had neither the training nor the imagination to look behind Officer Smith and see a communal policy which has not the power to suppress, nor the courage to acknowledge, nor the skill to regulate, and so contents itself with sending out full-fed policemen in civilian clothes to work up the evidence that defends society against her kind through the imposition of a ten-dollar fine.
To some of the women on the visitors’ benches the cruelty of the process came home: this business of setting a two-hundred-pound policeman in citizen’s clothes, backed up by magistrates, clerks, court criers, interpreters, and court attendants, to worrying a ten-dollar fine out of a half-grown woman under an enormous imitation ostrich plume. The professional sociologists were chiefly interested in the money cost of this process to the tax-payer, and they took notes on the proportion of first offenders. Yet the Night Court is a remarkable advance in civilization. Formerly, in addition to her fine, the prisoner would pay a commission to the professional purveyor of bail.
Sometimes, if the magistrate was young or new to the business, she would be given a chance against Officer Smith. She would be called to the witness chair and under oath be allowed to elaborate on the obvious lies which constituted her usual defense. This would give her the opportunity, between the magistrate’s questions, of sweeping the courtroom with a full, hungry look for as much as half a minute at a time. She saw the women in the audience only, and their clothes. The pity in their eyes did not move her, because she was not in the least interested in what they thought, but in how they looked and what they wore. They were part of a world which she would read about—she read very little—in the society columns of the Sunday newspaper. They were the women around whom headlines were written and whose pictures were printed frequently on the first page.
She could study them with comparative leisure in the Night Court. Outside in the course of her daily routine she might catch an occasional glimpse of these same women, through the windows of a passing taxi, or in the matinée crowds, or going in and out of the fashionable shops. But her work took her seldom into the region of taxicabs and fashionable shops. The nature of her occupation kept her to furtive corners and the dark side of streets. Nor was she at such times in the mood for just appreciation of the beautiful things in life. More than any other walk of life, hers was of an exacting nature, calling for intense powers of concentration both as regards the public and the police. It was different in the Night Court. Here, having nothing to fear and nothing out of the usual to hope for, she might give herself up to the esthetic contemplation of a beautiful world of which, at any other time, she could catch mere fugitive aspects.
Sometimes I wonder why people think that life is only what they see and hear, and not what they read of. Take the Night Court. The visitor really sees nothing and hears nothing that he has not read a thousand times in his newspaper and had it described in greater detail and with better-trained powers of observation than he can bring to bear in person. What new phase of life is revealed by seeing in the body, say, a dozen practitioners of a trade of whom we know there are several tens of thousands in New York? They have been described by the human-interest reporters, analyzed by the statisticians, defended by the social revolutionaries, and explained away by the optimists. For that matter, to the faithful reader of the newspapers, daily and Sunday, what can there be new in this world from the Pyramids by moonlight to the habits of the night prowler? Can the upper classes really acquire for themselves, through slumming parties and visits to the Night Court, anything like the knowledge that books and newspapers can furnish them? Can the lower classes ever hope to obtain that complete view of the Fifth Avenue set which the Sunday columns offer them? And yet there the case stands: only by seeing and hearing for ourselves, however imperfectly, do we get the sense of reality.
That is why our criminal courts are probably our most influential schools of democracy. More than our settlement houses, more than our subsidized dancing-schools for shopgirls, they encourage the get-together process through which one-half the world learns how the other half lives. On either side of the railing of the prisoners’ cage is an audience and a stage.
That is why she would look forward to her regular visits at the Night Court. She saw life there.